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UK Politics

Licence to export was needed

Sir Robin Butler, head of the Home Civil Service, yesterday denied a claim by the senior civil servants' union that Whitehall's political neutrality is being compromised.

In a two-hour appearance before an all-party committee of MPs, Sir Robin also contradicted a suggestion by Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, that the privatised Royal Ordnance company was uniquely exempt from normal licensing requirements for arms exports.

The Independent reported on Tuesday that a letter sent by Mr Portillo to Stephen Byers, a Labour frontbencher, revealed that Lord Justice Scott was misled during his inquiry into the export of arms-related equipment to Iraq and Iran.

Contrary to an assurance given to the inquiry, Mr Portillo said it appeared "some arrangement" must have been agreed that enabled the company to continue its exemption after its sale to British Aerospace in 1987. An eight-month trawl of more than 1,000 RO export licence applications showed a "relative absence" of supporting documentation".

Pressed yesterday by Labour's John Gunnell, Sir Robin said that although the matter was not within his personal competence, he had seen a briefing which contradicted the Independent and that the company was subject to the licensing procedures in just the normal way after its sale to BAe.